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David Moses Bridges: An Artist and Activist Walks On

David Moses Bridges, a maker of traditional birch bark canoes and a Passamaquoddy culture keeper, died January 20.
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PLESANT POINT, Maine – David Moses Bridges, a maker of traditional birch bark canoes and a Passamaquoddy culture keeper, died January 20 at his home on the banks of Passamaquoddy Bay on the Pleasant Point Indian Reservation.

Bridges, 54, suffered from sinus cancer and was undergoing treatment in Portland before he died.

An artist and activist, he worked to preserve Wabanaki culture and fought for the environmental rights of tribes in Maine and across North America. The Maine Arts Commission named him a Traditional Arts Fellow, the state’s highest honor in craft. In 2006, the First People’s Fund gave him its Community Spirit Award, a national honor in recognition of his work as an activist and traditional artist. He also was an excellent basketmaker, and finished first for traditional basketmaking at the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair and Market in 2015.

Theresa Secord, a Penobscot basketmaker from Maine and National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow, described him as “a truly gifted artist, teacher and culture bearer,” and said Bridges’ death reverberates across Maine and Indian country.

“David was an inspiration to many, especially young male Wabanaki artists,” Secord told the Portland Press Herald. “He will always be remembered among the brightest stars of our Wabanaki culture today. The Passamaquoddies have a song, and some of the words are, ‘We are the stars who sing, we sing with our light.’ David now sings with his light.”

David Moses Bridges was born in Portland, and learned the traditional ways by returning to the reservation in the summer to visit relatives. He learned from his great-grandfather Sylvester Gabriel how to build canoes that were sturdy enough to navigate the Atlantic Ocean and sleek enough to slice easily among the bays and rivers. From his female relatives, he learned the make baskets.

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As he got older, he became more interested in his culture and more active in Indian affairs, said Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, president of the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine. The museum explores the history and culture of the Wabanaki.

As a museum board member, Bridges helped guide internal discussions about a new strategic plan and the museum’s effort to reinterpret its collection and approach to storytelling from a Native perspective. “He was always a voice for sovereignty,” she said. “He was a kind and loving artist and advocate for Native issues. He never hesitated standing up when he needed to, and he always said what needed to be said.”

David Moses Bridges also was an environmentalist, who helped the Passamaquoddy fight a liquefied natural gas terminal that was proposed near tribal land, and was a plaintiff in a successful lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs asserting Native rights in self-determination.

In one of his last interviews, he expressed regret for not having the strength to travel to Standing Rock in North Dakota to fight the Dakota Access Pipeline. “I am there in spirit,” he said just before Thanksgiving.

David Moses Bridges was 11 years old when the American Indian Movement seized and occupied the town of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1973. That’s when he began paying attention to Native issues and learning more about his culture and heritage.

Hugh French, director of the Tides Institute & Museum in Eastport, Maine, said David Moses Bridges was fully committed to that work until he died.

“He was very proud of his culture, and he worked to preserve that culture through his own work and through education. It was a tall order, and he went at it hard,” French said.